CARSON — Anybody trying to find Gyasi Zardes at the Los Angeles Galaxy's practice can identify him by the dark, golden mohawk contrasting with his naturally black hair.
"It takes a lot of character and self-assurance to come in with a hairdo like that and stick to it," said teammate Landon Donovan, who has played in three World Cups and scored more goals than anyone else for the United States.
Zardes' head provides more than a fashion platform. The former Cal State Bakersfield standout used it to score his first professional goal, a 10-yard header that bounced inside the left post during a 2-1 loss to Vancouver on May 11.
Zardes again relied on his head Sunday night to score the only goal in a 1-0 win against Chivas USA, his fifth consecutive start. That spree reflects Zardes' impact on a team beset by injuries and absences for international play.
"I'm playing with the best of the best in America," said Zardes, 21. "I'm playing against guys who are veterans and who know the game inside and out. It's been a great experience."
Zardes provides the Galaxy with an offensive dimension that is disappearing from the sport.
"His ability to run at people is a lost art these days in the soccer world," Donovan said. "If a defender knows that a guy's going to get the ball and pass it all the time, it makes (offense) very predictable. But when you have a guy who may run by you, it opens up a lot of space for the rest of the team."
Roadrunners coach Simon Tobin thoroughly knows about Zardes' speed and tenacity.
"I remember a training session during his first season at CSUB where he completely took over the session," Tobin said. "He was simply unplayable. I knew then that he could attain the highest levels of U.S. soccer."
But Zardes had to learn how to play as a forward, since he came to Bakersfield as a defender.
"I loved playing for Simon Tobin," Zardes said. "He helped me look at being a forward in a different perspective, as in reading the game better."
The lessons worked.
Zardes scored 18 goals in 2011, when CSUB went to its first NCAA Division I soccer tournament. As a reward, Zardes was named the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation's player of the year.
Last season, Zardes added 15 goals and left Bakersfield as the Roadrunners' second-leading career goal scorer (38) and point accumulator (94).
Succeeding in Major League Soccer, however, demands additional skills.
"The biggest challenge is playing quick and already making up your mind before the ball gets to you," Zardes said. "If you don't play quick, that defender will close you down and take the ball away from you."
Another skill involves playing new roles in a different formation.
"My role in Bakersfield was the high, lone striker," Zardes said. "I was used to the balls getting played up to me, and I would take care of it. Here, I play wide right and I play up top but with another striker. Wherever I go, I have somebody with me as opposed to playing alone."
Learning a new offensive style means "finding a teammate quickly so it can easily be a 2-on-1 or 3-on-1," Zardes said. "It just switches the odds very quickly."
Zardes' teammates are proving instrumental in his development.
"I love taking tips and advice from them," the rookie said. "I'm known for running fast with a burst of speed. But they tell me to take my time and choose my runs wisely just to conserve my energy for the full 90 minutes."
Zardes played all 90 minutes in his past three starts. After making his debut April 27, the former Roadrunner appeared in nine of the Galaxy's next 10 games in both the MLS and U.S. Open Cup.
"He's very raw," Donovan said. "He's got an abundance of potential but he needs to play games so he can start learning how to play tactically and positionally, and start being more comfortable in his decisions.
"If he's able to do the things he does and make great decisions, he's going to be very effective for us."